Media mogul Paul Bronfman, a major player in Canada’s entertainment industry, has withdrawn his support for York University’s film and creative programs over a controversial mural hanging in the university’s student centre.
“As a Canadian, never mind as a Jew, the fact the administration would allow this piece of garbage to be displayed in a student lounge… This is something concrete I could point to and say ‘Take that thing down or you’ll lose our support,’” Bronfman told The CJN.
As chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios and William F. White International, a supplier of film production equipment and expertise, Bronfman has donated thousands of dollars worth of production equipment, invited students to open houses and offered seminars, learning labs and technical training to students in the school’s arts programs.
The painting in question, entitled Palestinian Roots, was a winner in a student art contest and has hung in the student centre since 2013. It depicts a man holding rocks looking at a field and a bulldozer. On his back is a Palestinian flag and a map of Israel. Underneath the painting are the words “justice” and “peace” in several languages.
The painting has been the subject of controversy since it was first chosen, and Jewish student groups have complained to the administration about it, arguing the painting promotes violence toward Israel.
Bronfman, a director of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies (FSWC), learned about the painting recently when the organization’s CEO Avi Benlolo made a video about the painting that he posted to Facebook.
Bronfman spoke with York University president Mamdouh Shoukri and other senior administrators before making his decision, but said their responses were inadequate.
“Their position is indefensible. It’s a bunch of political, bureaucratic rhetoric. That’s all I got from the president himself,” he said. “It was just a bunch of legal nonsense and jargon.”
In a written statement, York defended its stance, saying, “Freedom of expression is one of York’s guiding principles.”
The university also argues its hands are tied because of where the painting is located, saying the decision about its display rests with the York University Student Centre, “a separate and distinct legal entity.”
The university said it has “consulted widely with experts” and concluded that it “cannot compel its removal.”
“We deeply regret Mr. Bronfman’s decision and would like to thank him for his support. Our arts, media, performance and design students have benefited from the experiential learning activities made possible by his generosity,” the university’s statement concluded.
Hillel Ontario noted that according to the student centre’s own guidelines, the picture should have been removed after two years and should no longer be on display.
“Hillel has continued to stress to the university administration that we are deeply disturbed by the ongoing display of this mural,” Hillel Ontario CEO Marc Newburgh said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the student centre could not be reached for comment.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) concurs that the painting should have come down long ago.
“It is outrageous that the York student centre continues to display a painting that glorifies Palestinian rock-throwing and uses the themes of ‘peace’ and ‘justice’ to justify violence,” Berl Nadler, GTA co-chair of CIJA, said in an email.
“It is unfortunate that the irresponsible decision of the student centre has put film students at York at a tremendous disadvantage, as they will no longer benefit from the multiple resources contributed by this generous donor,” added Joel Reitman, CIJA’s GTA co-chair.
Although Bronfman’s decision will affect York’s students, “all donors have the right to decide what they are doing with their money and to which organizations they want to give their gift,” Newburgh wrote.
Bronfman agreed that York’s students will bear the brunt of his decision, but said they can “blame the faculty, right up to the president.”
“The tone in my company is set by me. The tone of that university is set by the president.”